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Sad and Lonely

[whitespace] Freedy Johnston Changed His Mind: Love usually goes wrong in the songs of Freedy Johnston.

Freedy Johnston's guitar-rock gently weeps on 'Blue Days, Black Nights'

By Gina Arnold

FREEDY JOHNSTON may be the squarest-looking guy you'll ever see gracing the stage of a nightclub--a short-haired, bland-faced Midwesterner whose face wears a perpetually pained look. Personally, he is Mr. Anonymous, but his work has long been lauded as some of the most delicately wrought rock songwriting.

Blue Days, Black Nights (Elektra Records) is his eighth record, and it's a tribute to Johnston's skill that he has made an album that, as its title implies, is one long downer--and still a pleasure to listen to. Indeed, Johnston is a one-man argument against the prevailing cultural opinion that all white guys are insensitive assholes.

If anything, Johnston feels too much. In a pinch, he could get put on the Lilith Fair bill since, like the stereotypical Lilith Fairy, he plays songs about bad birthdays, empty houses, picking flowers in the snow and girlfriends who dumped him hard, leaving him alone in bed staring at the wall. Musically, his spare, acoustic-based songs with faintly jazzy backgrounds would fit right in.

Johnston is not, however, the unmanly John Tesh type such a description implies. His real medium is guitar rock--closer in spirit to bands like the Goo Goo Dolls or SemiSonic than to Jewel. But his earlier work on records like The Trouble Tree and Can You Fly rocked a lot harder than his latest. Indeed, Trouble Tree evoked Asbury Park­era Bruce Springsteen or a more high-pitched Tom Waits. Johnston's songwriting took a different turn than those artists', however, going the songwriter route rather than the actor/rock star one. He's a modern-day Jackson Browne.

Blue Days, Black Nights is much softer than most modern-rock LPs without being exactly easy-listening; its themes of loneliness and loss are a little too intense for pop fans to embrace fully. No one actually commits suicide on this record, nor does Johnston actually date an undertaker's daughter, as on This Perfect World. But even so, the record's mood comes across as decidedly downbeat. Although Johnston is clearly a die-hard romantic, in songs like "The Farthest Lights," "Changed Your Mind" and "Pretend It's Summer," love has pretty much already gone wrong. More often than not, his songs start with someone saying goodbye.

OF COURSE, there is something very comforting about unhappy-sounding artists. As Elton John once said, sad songs say so much, and Johnston excels at creating a beautifully wistful atmosphere that uplifts even as it bemoans the Loneliness of Life. At his best--like on the song "Emily" and "Underwater Life"--he can elevate the concept of depression to something both poignant and attractive.

Johnston fits into a record rack with Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello and the aforementioned Browne, though the tunes of his songs are more gentle and folksy. Essentially, he is a lyric writer. But his songs have gone from long, complex stories to simple, pithy, one-syllable phrases. "I can almost hear my heart," he sings on "Moving on a Holiday." And "The lonely day is at an end/until the sun comes back again."

It's a little strange, though. Listening to Johnston's oeuvre, one can only assume that his spirits just keep going down, down, down. Jeez, what's wrong with the man? Does anything happy ever happen to him, and what if it did? With his skill, he could probably write a real winner if he'd just lift his chin up a little--especially as all his love-sucks songs invariably have a kind of whiny "you were mean to me" tone that's hard to take in a guy.

"This is how the story ends/face-up on the floor again/wondered how he let himself believe her/darkness now his only friend" is a pretty unappealing image. Similarly, although there's probably a lot of truth in the truculent nature of a song like "Changed Your Mind," an undercurrent of nasty petulance creeps in when he sings things like "You decided maybe that I wasn't your type" and "I'm sorry for him."

Listening to Johnston makes me realize why many men don't like Alanis Morissette. It's not that she isn't right in her accusations. It's just icky having to listen to her elaborate so accurately the foibles of her own gender. All the same, Johnston's a pretty phenomenal musical craftsman, and his slightly nasal voice has a strange, high-lonesome attractiveness, half Vic Chestnutt, half Michael Stipe. Blue Days, Black Nights is not the record for everyone, but people who enjoy thoughtful, smooth, midtempo rock songwriting and are looking for a new artist to add to their collection will consider him quite a find.

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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